This is Katherine Clements’ second novel, following her debut The Crimson Ribbon, which I read last year. Both books are set during the English Civil War, but while The Crimson Ribbon is written from a Parliamentarian perspective (the main character is a servant in the household of Oliver Cromwell), The Silvered Heart takes us into the Hertfordshire countryside and shows us what life was like for the Royalists after they found themselves on the losing side. Our heroine this time is Katherine Ferrers, a legendary seventeenth century highwaywoman, known as “the Wicked Lady”.
The story begins in 1648 in an England divided by war – a war which seems to be entering its final stages following a series of Royalist defeats and the imprisonment of the King at Carisbrooke Castle. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is on her way to Ware Park, home of Thomas Fanshawe to whom she is being married off, when her carriage is attacked by a band of highwaymen. She survives this encounter, but what she experiences that day will go on to shape the course of her life.
Katherine’s marriage to Thomas is not a happy one, even after the war ends. Her husband spends most of his time in London plotting with his friends and dreaming of the day the monarchy will be restored, while Katherine struggles to get by at Ware Park, now impoverished and neglected, like many of the once great Royalist estates. With her own inheritance – her childhood home, Markyate Cell – lost to her, Katherine’s future looks bleak, especially as she is unable to give Thomas the child he so desperately wants. It’s only after meeting Rafe Chaplin, brother of her maid Rachel, and learning about his way of life, that Katherine discovers another option is open to her…if she chooses to take it.
I enjoyed The Silvered Heart – I thought it was a better book than The Crimson Ribbon – but it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I had imagined lots of scenes involving moonlit roads, coaches appearing out of the mist, and shouts of “stand and deliver”. There was a little bit of that, but not as much as I was hoping for. I was disappointed that I was almost two hundred pages into the book before there was any hint of Katherine’s new career as a highwaywoman – and when it did happen, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the woman I had been getting to know in the first half of the novel would have chosen to turn to a life of crime.
Where The Silvered Heart does excel is in its portrayal of England in the aftermath of civil war, during the period known as the Interregnum: a time when those who had been loyal to their king find that they have their homes taken from them or are so heavily taxed and fined they can no longer afford to live in the manner they are used to; a time when men with Royalist sympathies risk exile or imprisonment in the Tower of London, and when networks of spies and double agents are formed as loyalties shift and allegiances change. This is the world in which Katherine finds herself and the backdrop against which her story is played out.
While the highway robbery aspect of the novel isn’t given as much attention as I would have liked, there is a lot of focus on Katherine’s romantic entanglements and relationships with the other main characters in the novel. I have already mentioned her unhappy marriage to Thomas Fanshawe and her partnership with Rafe Chaplin, but there are two more characters whom I found particularly interesting: Rachel, Katherine’s maid, whose relationship with her mistress is much more complex than it appeared to be at first, and Richard Willis, a scheming Royalist officer who knows more about Katherine than she is comfortable with.
I enjoyed reading the author’s note at the end of the book in which Clements tells us about the real life Lady Katherine Ferrers and shares with us a picture of the only known portrait of our heroine. It seems that there is a lack of actual evidence to link the real woman with the Wicked Lady of legend – Clements has drawn on both the historical facts and the details of the legend to create her version of events – but it’s interesting to consider the circumstances that may have led to these stories springing up around Katherine.
It appears that Katherine Ferrers has inspired a number of other novels (Deborah Swift’s recent young adult novel, Shadow on the Highway, is one) and also some films, including a 1945 adaptation starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. I’m surprised that I had never heard of her before reading The Silvered Heart, but I’m pleased to have been introduced to this fascinating woman at last!